Reclaiming Meditation

When you hear the word "meditation," what comes to mind?

A yoga studio?

Sitting cross-legged and trying to empty your mind?

For most of the West, "meditation" has generally become more associated with Eastern religions than anything else. When we stumble across the word in Scripture - in Psalm 1, say - we aren't necessarily sure what to do with it:

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. (vv. 1-3)

And that loss is a shame, because Christian meditation is a rich practice that was close to the heart of Christians for centuries. Look among the monks of the Middle Ages, the Puritans of the early modern era, or the evangelists of the 19th and 20th centuries - all of them, without fail, will point to words like Psalm 1 and commend this practice.

But what is it?

Not emptying, but filling

In contrast to Eastern meditation, which uses either silence or a repeated formula to try to empty the mind, Christian meditation tries to fill the mind with Scripture or other truths of God. At its heart, meditation is thinking deeply about God or about God's Word.

One helpful if kinda gross analogy is that of a cow chewing its cud. Cows (outside of farms) can grow to hundreds of pounds entirely by eating grass: no small feat, if you've ever tried to live on protein-less salad alone. But cows can manage it because they have four stomachs through which food is processed; they swallow some grass, process it, spit it back up, chew it (that's the cud), swallow again, and repeat, until they pull every bit of nutrition there is to pull out of that grass.

In the same way, the living and active words of the Bible can be that life-giving to us: but too often we don't take time to get out the nutrition that's there to be had. We skim a text, pray for 30 seconds, and go our way without coming back to what we've read.

Mind, soul, heart, strength

In putting this into practice, the most helpful way for me to actually meditate is to adopt Jesus' command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. I don't do all of these even in a good meditation session, but when I can I try to look at a passage of Scripture through these lenses:

The mind: What is there to learn?

  • What's the main point of this text?
  • What information does it have to teach: about God, about the world, about how I know God or live with God?
  • Does this remind me of other passages of Scripture? What extra light do they shed on the text?

The soul: What is there to imagine?

  • Is there a story or a poem I can try to make real in my mind?
  • What images or ideas is the writer using? What is he saying with those?
  • How can I put myself into the story?

The heart: What is there to feel?

  • What's the emotional tone of this passage? What does the author feel so strongly about?
  • What does this passage show about what God loves or hates? Do I feel the same way he feels?
  • How can I paint the beauty (or ugliness) of this thing in a way that moves me like I should be moved?

The strength: What is there to do?

  • If this were radically true in my life, how would my day change?
  • What is God asking or commanding in this passage? How does he provide for someone to do that?

This is a sample list rather than an exhaustive one - there's not a single prescription on "how to meditate" in the Bible - but hopefully it can be a helpful start!

I'll close with some very practical tips:

1. Silence is golden

If you can do this in absolute quiet, that's hands-down best. If for whatever reason you can't manage that, create an environment that's as undistracting as possible: instrumental music without 30-second commercial breaks, etc.

2. Use pen and paper

At this point in my life, trying to think clearly without writing is like flapping my arms to fly. I need a journal if I'm going to put down thoughts in any coherent order for any amount of time.

Also, I do a lot of writing on the computer, but even so I focus better with a print Bible and print journaling than digital.

3. Try to memorize

Even if all you can manage is one phrase or one image, do what you can to remember it and come back to it during the day - the practice itself will make you a better memorizer, and will keep truth fresh in your mind.

4. Talk about it

I'm an internal processor, so I learn best through writing. But - especially if you're an external processor - what you're learning will stick better if you tell someone about it. Have a check-in with someone where you talk about what you're meditating on and where it's leading you!

Image: "Saint Augustine," by Philippe de Champaigne